The Soft Bigotry of Hard Grading

Whoever wrote the phrase ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’ back in the early days of the Bush (W) administration, was a genius. In one nifty sound bite, the blame for the so-called achievement gap was placed squarely on the shoulders of educators, those barrel-bottom, unimaginative civil servants slogging along in low-paying careers.

Not only were veteran teachers unable to conceive of their students’ success (presumably, getting into a competitive-admissions college)—they were also bigots, kind of. Perhaps they hadn’t read 25 books on racism, been hooked on The Wire, or stayed for two grueling years in a no-excuses charter before heading off to Goldman Sachs. They were just stuck in those dead-end teaching jobs.

Early in the ‘reform’ days—a couple decades ago—Disruptor types were prone to proclaiming that high expectations for all students were, in fact, a positive disruption to what they assumed was the low and unimaginative level of teaching practice endemic in public education. Especially in schools filled with kids who took home backpacks full of peanut butter and whole wheat crackers every Friday.

If only teachers had faith in their students, cracking the academic whip and believing they could someday rise above their circumstances and excel—well, then things would be different. What we needed was new—high and rigorous—standards, better aligned curricula, more sorting-out data. We needed ‘choice’ to remove kids from low-expectations government schools.

And of course, better teachers, teachers who embodied these great expectations and were willing to rip up unacceptable assignments. Even if it made kids cry.

The ‘low expectations’ trope became a thing. The 74 was still printing pieces about it, 18 years later, using phrases like ‘complacency is also still alive and well’ and ‘having teachers who were confident that their students would complete college made a real difference in their college attainment.’

The 74’s suggestions for improvement? You won’t be surprised: higher standards, more testing and raising the cutoff scores, rigorous curriculum—and better teachers, the kind who expected more. Nary a mention of better health care, better jobs with higher wages, better childcare options, better support networks for people in poverty. Or less racism.

When I read that Fordham was releasing a new report entitled Great Expectations: The Impact of Rigorous Grading Practices on Student Achievement, I assumed it would be more of the same: a screed against ‘grade inflation’ that urged teachers to use the threat of bad grades as ‘motivator’ in getting kids to Learn More (and score better on high-stakes tests, quantitative ‘proof’ of learning).

Turns out I was right.  Here’s the first paragraph of the introductory summary:
We know from previous survey research that teachers who hold high expectations for all of their students significantly increase the odds that those young people will go on to complete high school and college. One indicator of teachers’ expectations is their approach to grading—specifically, whether they subject students to more or less rigorous grading practices. Unfortunately, “grade inflation” is pervasive in U.S. high schools, as evidenced by rising GPAs even as SAT scores and other measures of academic performance have held stable or fallen. The result is that a “good” grade is no longer a clear marker of knowledge and skills.

Here’s how my 30-odd years’ worth of grading some 5000 students (at least 35K individual grades) squares with the statement above:

  • High expectations are a good thing, all right—but they are not commensurate with giving more unsatisfactory marks. In fact, being a ‘tough grader’ often means that the teacher is not meeting a substantial chunk of kids where they are, then moving them forward. The easiest thing in the world is giving a low or failing grade and blaming it on the student. The hard thing is figuring out how to help that child achieve at the level he’s capable of.
  • The longer I taught, the higher my expectations were, as I learned what students at different developmental levels were able to do—but that was not reflected in the grades I gave. I assumed it was because I had become a better teacher and was getting better results as my teacher tool bag filled. I could see with my own eyes that I had underestimated what my students could learn and apply, if they chose to work at it.
  • I seriously doubt that teachers’ expectations—as defined here by more rigorous grading– have much, if any, impact on kids’ completing college, or even high school. A teacher who encourages a student to think big, to push herself, to reach for the stars and so on, may indeed have a long-term positive effect on a student, especially one with self-doubts. Setting students on a path to higher education and life success is a long-term, K-12 project, one that can’t be accomplished by teachers alone and certainly not by dropping the grading scale a few points to teach them a lesson.
  • Grades aren’t real, although the argument can be made that they’re more real than a standardized test score (which the report also uses to make the claim that ‘raising the bar’ has a salutary effect on student outcomes). No matter how schools try to standardize grading, the human judgment factor creeps in. As it should. Students see their grades as something ‘given’ by the teacher, no matter how many times teachers insist that grades are ‘earned’ and can be accurately, precisely, mathematically granted.*
  • Grade inflation isn’t real either. I am always amused by disgruntled edu-grouches who insist that Harvard, say, is awash in grade inflation. When an institution turns away 94.6% of the students who have the temerity to apply, why are we shocked when the crème de la crème who are admitted get all A’s?
  • If we were doing our jobs better, by Fordham’s metrics—following rigorous standards, choosing engaging and challenging curricula, assessing frequently—wouldn’t the desired outcome be better grades?
  • The worst kind of grading practice is the bell curve. Curving grades has gone out of fashion, but you still see its aftereffects in reports like this that bemoan the overly high percentage of students whose work is deemed good or superior. If you’ve ever had a class filled with go-getters (and I’ve had many), you’ll know it’s possible to teach to the highest standards and have every child in the class performing at a high level. Someone does NOT have to fail. What the researchers here seem to be endorsing is a curve where students in high-poverty schools are not compared with their peers, but with kids in advantaged schools—then taking the top-scoring kids down a peg or two, for their own good.
  • Bad grades don’t motivate most kids to try harder, although this seems to be the sweeping conclusion of the report, which studied 8th and 9th Algebra students in North Carolina. The researchers noted that students in advantaged schools were more likely to make gains when receiving a lower grade. There are lots of charts and graphs showing how teachers who give lower grades initially cause an uptick in standardized assessment scores eventually. This is more likely to happen if that teacher went to a ‘selective’ college or is an experienced veteran teacher, by the way. As for the poor students who go to rural or urban schools—well, they get good grades that don’t reflect what they’ve really learned. Therefore, maybe we should give them lower grades, too, as an early reality check.
  • I repeat: bad grades don’t usually motivate kids, unless there’s someone at home checking up on them, they plan on going to college and care about their GPA. In that case, a lower grade may serve as a heads-up that more effort may be necessary. Do 8th grade Algebra students and students in advantaged schools where most kids are college bound fit into that category? Yes.

Students who do well in school also know how to study effectively– or seek extra help when something is difficult for them. They’re not as likely to think that the tough-grading Algebra teacher doesn’t like them, or that they’ve finally found a subject they can’t successfully master. Lots of previous successes have given them the confidence to pursue a challenging subject.

What struck me about the report was the facile conclusion that a subset of (higher-achieving) students was motivated by a lower-than-expected grade into learning more.

Extrapolating that into a declaration that tougher grading would lead to higher achievement is giving way to much credence to a cranky-pants theory, the one where a kick in the pants is what kids these days really need.

 

*In my 30+ year career, I taught math for two years. Prior to that, I collected various data to develop and tweak a defensible grading process for teaching instrumental and vocal music. Music is a challenging discipline in which to assess using hard numbers, trust me; I envied my math teacher friends whose grades were always clean, clear percentages. Then I taught math and discovered—eh, you can juke the stats in math, too, through assignment weighting, partner quizzes (recommended by our math series), late assignment policies, re-takes, homework evaluation policies—and so much more. Grading—in any subject or level– is not science. Never has been.

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10 Comments

  1. Re “Grade inflation isn’t real either. I am always amused by disgruntled edu-grouches who insist that Harvard, say, is awash in grade inflation. When an institution turns away 94.6% of the students who have the temerity to apply, why are we shocked when the crème de la crème who are admitted get all A’s?”

    Oh, grade inflation is real. In a California community college, possibly the only one at the time that had a research department, I asked for an informal study of grade inflation (based upon grade distributions in the database) … at that college and not any surrounding institutions. This college had a solid academic reputation. What elicited my request was my data showing an alarming decline in the number of higher grades being earned in my course.

    The report showed substantial grade inflation. I asked the Academic Senate to sponsor an official study to be distributed to all for discussion purposes only … and it declined. Most thought I was naive and that they knew what the situation was and why it was.

    Grade inflation is not that highly competitive universities are giving out high grades, it is that lesser institutions are doing so, making it ever so much harder for students to get understandable feedback as to their learning progress and those higher institutions getting accurate assessments of the candidates for attendance at their schools.

    I always viewed grades as a way to gauge effort. The quickest way to tell a student that they do not need to work harder is to give them an A. For students who do not need to work harder, this is appropriate and fitting. For students who do need, this is an egregious neglect of a teacher’s responsibility to teach.

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    1. Grades are not feedback. I certainly agree that all students need feedback to gauge their learning progress. But that feedback doesn’t need to be a grade–a final assessment or (let’s be blunt, since we’re talking about grade inflation) or ranking. And just what are we ranking? Compared to what/whom, in other words? The other students in an entry-level community college or students in selective-admissions Ivies? Compared to their earlier work?

      Assessment–feedback, if you will–does not have to involve rankings (which are the foundation of ‘grade inflation’). Good assessment models tell students what they’re doing well and what needs improvement, on a specific academic task.

      As for including ‘effort’ in a grade–that assumes that the teacher knows how hard a student worked. That’s 100% subjective. In the thousands of grading-focused conversations ongoing now, in K-12 circles, teachers are backing away from grading on participation, attitude and effort–all speculative. What matters in grading (if we’re going to do it at all) is what the students knows and is able to do.

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  2. Grade inflation definitely exists.

    I found that at least in the school-system (DCPS) where I tried to teach kids math for 30 years, grade inflation definitely occurred. We math department teachers were routinely berated for giving the lowest grades of any department (at several schools) until we got mandated to issue fewer and fewer failing grades for any reason, or get really low ratings ourselves and/or get fired. In one case I had to go all the way to arbitration.

    Nowadays, after me retiring from DC schools, it’s even worse, from published reports and from what my former colleagues tell me. If a kid misses a certain number of days without valid excuses, the system’s own regulations state that a student automatically fails. As you probably heard, an enormous proportion of the DCPS seniors had unexcused absences way in excess of that number, and also did virtually no work in those classes, and passed no tests or quizzes. Yet they didn’t fail — teachers were told in no uncertain terms that they were not allowed to fail any student, no matter how few times the student attended class, how little work the student did, or how few assessments or projects of any type that the student even attempted.

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    1. When teachers aren’t in control of the grades they give, because their discretionary authority over evaluating children is taken away from them–I’m not sure you could call that ‘grade inflation.’ Fake grades that don’t reflect teacher assessment but merely an attempt to avoid confrontation or phone calls or public recognition that no learning is going on–that’s not inflating grades. It’s corruption of the entire process.

      Which is kind of the point of the blog: grades are not necessarily scientific compilations of work completed, knowledge or skills demonstrated. In some places (like the ones you’re describing), they’re alternative facts that serve to advance a false narrative about all students succeeding, when in fact they’re not.

      The cure for this kind of phony assessment/evaluation data is not tougher grading or failing more kids. It’s to stop focusing on grading as we typically do it–percentages, scales, weighting, cut scores and so on. There’s a whole conversation about throwing out grades, or modifying systems, debunking the myth that students won’t work unless we give them grades (then resorting to artificially raising those grades because we’ve trained our students to be focused on grades rather than learning).

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  3. And for what it’s worth, grade inflation exists in France as well, according to reports I’ve read. Their system is generally based on a 10- or 20-point scale, and it used to be that the midpoint of those scales was passing, AND also the midpoint of a gaussian curve (or bell curve) of student grades: almost no 19’s or 20’s,, and if you got a 12 out of 20, it was considered quite good indeed. Graders of the country’s notoriously difficult baccalaureat exam (experienced teachers themselves) report that the grading and curving have moved quite a bit to the right. Passing is still 10, but 19’s ans 20’s are much more common. They say the work produced isn’t better than 30 years ago, but the grading is more generous.

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  4. This is leaving aside the question of whether grades are a form of ranking or a form of assessment. If it’s the latter, they are a very blunt instrument, given too late (in general) to be helpful.

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      1. Obviously we would fix that by having enough time for the teacher to confer with the student (or to write notes) indicating where he/she is strong and where he/she needs to improve. That takes time, and small student:teacher ratios

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